It was a slow Saturday morning. All – I mean all – of the senior aviators were off station in Japan for a 5th Air Force Commander’s conference. I was the Assistant Deputy Commander for Operations for the 51st Composite Wing, and even with those several modifiers, was the guy in charge for the weekend.
All was good. The Eagle air defense alert force was up and ready for a scramble. The RF-4C Bench box (the “box” is a unique sensor package used to surveil the North Koreans on a routine basis, supplementing the U-2 and SR-71 on that mission) was not on the schedule. The U-2 was not up for its routine early launch to orbit just south of the DMZ. The Fiends didn’t have anyone on cross country. The Broncos had nothing scheduled for the weekend. The twice weekly 747 Freedom Bird was not due in for several days.
Looked like a day in the gym and perhaps nine holes on the Osan links were great possibilities for the weekend.
Oh, there was one small thing: an SR-71 Blackbird had diverted in earlier in the week with a generator problem, but the Kadena maintainers had flown in and got the problem fixed. I had no idea where the crew was – probably sequestered with their U-2 brethren in low profile quarters. The SAC Detachment kept pretty well to themselves, making their tasking and providing recce support to CINCUNC (Commander-in-Chief UN Command), the intel community in Hawaii, and points east. The Blackbird was supposed to take off RTB (return to base) Kadena early mid-morning, so I decided to get down to the tower and watch the launch. Dressed for a possible trip on the links, I made it to the tower and was in place, chatting with the tower operators awaiting the SR-71’s launch. All quiet and casual.
I don’t recall the time exactly, but it was probably around 1000 Osan time when the Blackbird came onto the taxiway and set up for a westerly departure. No traffic, clear skies, a great day for any form of aviation. Coffee in the tower was fresh and the tower crew was alert but relaxed. “Habu 71 cleared for runway 27, cleared for takeoff, cleared for unrestricted climb.” The Blackbird moved on to the active, lined up, stroked the burners on those two Pratt & Whitney J-58s and started a slow, but steady acceleration down runway center. But, now the “Aw, Sh*t!”
As you’d expect with all that thrust, slow acceleration built quickly, still all OK. Then, the Blackbird veered sharply and quickly to the right side of the runway. Everyone in the tower sat up straight, and then the bird departed the runway and came to an abrupt, ugly stop.
A quick glance showed the nosewheel and right main in the mud, the left main and left wing well on the runway, and a black, coffin sized and shaped object on the runway, a couple of hundred feet behind the aircraft. (More on that later.)
The footprint of the Blackbird is heavy in terms of pounds per square foot, so quickly the main gear was deep in the wet turf – the nose gear not so much – but it was stuck. What also was stuck was the United States Air Force’s ability to use its Main Operating Base on the Korean Peninsula. The runway was blocked. This meant that the ability to safely launch the F-15 air defense force was compromised. The ability to receive and launch airlift sorties, including the C-141, C-5 and the 747s, was effectively eliminated as long as the Blackbird was on the runway. PARPRO (Peacetime Airborne Reconnaissance Program) sorties with the U-2 and the specially tasked RF-4Cs monitoring North Korean activities along the Demilitarized Zone were also in a stand-down.
We quickly convened the Battle Staff. As the principles were assembling, we got a call from Omaha – it was the SAC Director of Ops on the line. He was loud and clear: “What’s going on with my Blackbird?” How’d he know so fast? Oh, yeah, the Black Cat U-2 Det. at Osan had gotten on the horn with their counterparts at Kadena (the forward base of the SR-71s in Pacific Air Command) and on a hotline with their boss at SAC Headquarters. Of course.
The answer was brief: “Shortly after starting takeoff roll, the SR-71 veered to the right and stopped with the nose wheel and right main off the runway, a sensor pallet came loose from the right chine area and fell on the runway. There was no fire and the aircrew egressed and left the scene – apparently unharmed.”
“Cover the pallet, get it off the runway, and secure it. Can you move the jet?”
Reply: “Don’t know yet – the nose and main are in the mud. Won’t be easy to get a tow bar on the nose wheel.”
Response: “Give it a good look and tell me what you think you’ll be able to do and when. Call me back in thirty minutes.”
We looked at each other without any great idea coming quickly. In the meantime, we needed to get a report to the Air Division, Fifth Air Force and PACAF (Pacific Air Forces) on the airfield status. The Blackbird was partially on the runway, somewhere around 1500 to 2000 feet from the approach end of the runway. Clearly, we were out of the business of handling any heavies – tankers, C-141s and 747s. C-130 ops were possible. Launch of a U-2 was possible; recovery would be problematic. The F-15 alert force would be able to launch and recover with some restrictions based on weather and probably have some limitation on making the scramble time. Launch of the F-4s, fighters and recce, was possible, with recovery at another PACAF base on the Republic of Korea to avoid any conflict with the “National Asset” partially on the runway.
Short answer: the main USAF operating base on the Korean Peninsula had a limited capability to support a significant portion of both its peacetime and wartime missions. That message was passed on by voice and message to appropriate theater headquarters.
Now, what to do about getting the runway back in full operation? We decided to get out to the airfield and look at the situation personally. We assembled the appropriate players: ops, maintenance, civil engineer, fire department crash and rescue, and a few more subject matter experts I don’t recall.
Assessment: the footprint of the SR was heavy and the nose gear and right main were pretty “stuck in the mud,” making a conventional tug from the front a bad solution. We had no idea about the structural makeup of the Blackbird and what could be done to move the aircraft without causing severe damage.
About now it was time to get back on the horn with SAC and provide our assessment. We did. Their answer was they were prepping a KC-135 with a recovery crew and appropriate equipment to move the aircraft to a secure area. Good idea, but the aircraft would not be landing at Osan – there was no way that class of aircraft could safely land on the restricted runway.
Pause out of Omaha.
With that break in the conversation, we got into the discussion on how the SR might be moved. It was clear that the notion of pulling it from the back end was not anywhere in the SAC SOPs. While we never got the direct information, it was clear that the Blackbird crew had been in contact with the home office and apprised them on the condition of the bird from their view – engines OK, vibration in the nose area contributed to the veering to the right, and vibrations causing the sensor pallet to detach from the airframe and fall on the runway.
SAC advised the tanker and recovery crew would be departing Beale shortly. We reminded them that Osan was not able to receive the tanker and suggested the ROKAF base at Suwon as a possibility. Good facility, and about 30-45 minutes by road from Osan. The operational issues with using Suwon were minimal since our wing had a squadron of A-10s based there – diplomatic and security (if there were any associated with SAC requirements) issues were another matter. We were prepared to use informal channels to open these doors via the ROKAF forces at Osan and made that offer. We got a “get back with us in an hour” or so with a status update.
Roger, over and out.
Given Osan’s role as the major USAF organization in the ROK we had some heavier experience in specific support functions than you’d find at most air bases. One was our Civil Engineer – he was a very savvy guy and had a bigger organization with broader expertise than most. We went back to see the foreign object on our runway and do some brainstorming for solutions. Our engineer had a pretty good idea about how to get the aircraft out of the mud, off the runway and into a hangar for assessment and appropriate repair: just like you’d get a car out of the mud, dig “ramps” behind the nose wheel and right main, shore them up with gravel and 2”x 4s”. But how to move the aircraft?
(It is worthwhile to put a little substance on the job of moving the SR-71, since it is a unique aircraft. It is over 100 ft. long – an F-4 is just a tad over 60 ft. Empty weight is around 68,000 pounds; fully fueled up to 170,000 pounds. A C-130 empty is just less than 76,000 pounds. Max takeoff weight is approximately 150,00 pounds. The MACH 3+ Blackbird is big, heavy and has a “solid” footprint).
How about cables going from aft of left main, around the nose gear, and around the right main, forming a triangle that could be attached to some locomotion? This notion was pushed up to the SAC decision makers who had access to experts in the command and Lockheed about how this might be appropriate to moving the aircraft with minimal chance of causing severe damage. “We’ll get back to you.” In the meantime, we continued to noodle the problem and started the low-level process of getting the SAC KC-135 into Suwon.
Our higher headquarters guidance from our two channels was sort of coincident: PACAF wanted the runway open for all operations quickly and “with all due caution” for damage to the Blackbird; SAC wanted the aircraft protected and associated components (the pallet) secured, and the airfield open so their recovery team could arrive ASAP. Serving two masters is never simple.
Through local and theater efforts, we secured permission from the ROK to bring the SAC bird into Suwon, and laid on the required transport to get the SAC team and equipment to Osan. In the meantime, there were refinements to the proposed plan to pull the Blackbird out of the muck with minimal chance of damage.
Stout cables attached to the strong points of the nose and main struts attached to a piece of Civil Engineering gear known as a “skip loader” (in layman’s terms a big olive drab piece of equipment with a very powerful diesel engine). The equipment was rounded up and taken to the runway. The Civil Engineer hand-picked the operator and briefed him on the delicate nature of the task – last words were something like “a simple task, don’t screw it up.”
So, the team – a few key workers and a host of observers – assembled and went about getting the gear rigged for the task. “Our” engineer assumed the role of conductor and directed the skip loader operator to begin the removal process. It was slow and deliberate – the first move of the Blackbird caused everyone to either catch their breath or wince as the jet moved slowly on the gravel and then up the ramps. An inch at a time the “national asset” moved from its resting place on the shoulder and back on to the runway.
Heavy sigh… The plan worked, and there was no apparent damage to any part of the Blackbird. The mud and muck was carefully removed from the wheels and landing gear, and it was taken slowly to a hangar where its SAC owners took possession and secured the jet until the Beale recovery team was on station to assess its condition and take appropriate action to get it flyable and back to Kadena, or wherever.
The Osan team took a smoke break (not uncommon in those days), made the appropriate calls to PACAF and returned to Ops Normal for a Saturday on the “ROK.” Golf for some (hey, it is an Air Force base), time in the gym for a few, a trip downtown for measurements at Mr. Oh’s for others, and a few beers at the clubs for almost everyone were the order of the day.
Postscript: By the time the senior leadership returned from conference, this demonstration of Yankee ingenuity was in the rearview mirror, and except in a few Command Post logs in Osan, Yokota, Hickam, Beale and Offutt there was little mention of the incident. No one, to my knowledge was “mentioned in dispatches.” But, we did watch with bated breath when the SR-71 taxied to the active runway and took off without incident a few days later. We felt good about our part in getting it back on its way.